Why The Hobbit is better than Lord of the Rings

This is something I’ve felt strongly about for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever laid out my arguments in detail. Spoilers ahead! (Not that I imagine this blog has many reads for whom Hobbit/LotR spoilers are an issue.)

First, and most obviously, the Hobbit is shorter. Shorter isn’t always better, but with longer books, it becomes more important that the author really knows what they’re doing in terms of pacing and keeping the readers interest over hundreds of pages. Lord of the Rings fans seem to mostly agree that while the book has many strengths, being a page-turned is not one of them.

Second, the Hobbit is arguably more influential:

  1. Notice that Dungeons and Dragons is called Dungeons and Dragons and not Dungeons and a Dark Lord Who Never Actually Appears On Screen.
  2. In The Hobbit, the point of the adventure is to acquire treasure, and along the way the protagonists acquire magic items by defeating monsters. This element is missing from Lord of the Rings, yet it’s crucial to much of the fantasy fiction and gaming allegedly inspired by Lord of the Rings.
  3. The Hobbit introduced us to Gandalf, one of the greatest wizards in all of fantasy fiction, probably second only to Merlin. Lord of the Rings introduced us to Gandalf, the Jesus metaphor (or maybe an angel, if you really know your Tolkien lore). Again, fantasy work allegedly inspired by Lord of the Rings generally sticks to following The Hobbit here.
  4. Again with the character classes: in The Hobbit, Bilbo is explicitly the party’s “burglar,” i.e. thief or rogue depending on which edition of Dungeons and Dragons you’re playing. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo has no useful skills except that the other members of the Fellowship think he’ll be better at resisting the One Ring’s influence, but he fails even at that in the end and needs to be saved by a Deus Ex Machina.

Compared to this, what did Lord of The Rings contribute to the fantasy genre? Well, there’s half-orcs. The One Ring is a classic example of a MacGuffin, but personally I prefer stories that don’t have a MacGuffin or at least aren’t so heavy-handed about it. Lord of the Rings’ most important contribution to the fantasy genre is probably how it influenced the idea of the Evil Overlord, but while it’s an important trope, it’s less important than The Hobbit’s contributions and, as noted above, Sauron never actually appears on-screen.

However, the most important reason The Hobbit is better than Lord of the Rings is The Hobbit is more realistic about human motivation and the consequences of war (this may actually explain why The Hobbit has been more influential). Lord of the Rings, infamously, has a simplistic good vs. evil narrative, which has been criticized in everything from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s The Sword of Good to Michael Moorcock’s Starship Stormtroopers. What’s less widely recognized is how much better The Hobbit does in this regard.

In The Hobbit, the main characters’ motivation is simple: treasure. And once Smaug is killed, the humans, dwarves, and elves almost end up killing each other over how to distribute the treasure. This is averted only when attacking goblins force the three armies to ally against them. In the resulting battle, Thorin (the leader of dwarves) dies, as do the two youngest members of the original party Kíli and Fíli, whose deaths serve no real purpose. Again, because treasure. Contrast Lord of the Rings, where no important characters die unless it’s dramatically appropriate.

Even the straightforwardly evil characters in The Hobbit, the goblins and Smaug, have a satirical edge in their portrayal. Smaug is a satire of human greed, and it’s hard not to notice he’s not so different from the dwarves. And the goblins’ crimes are human ones: slaving and inventing devices for killing and torture (Tolkien tells us “it is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once.”)

Yeah, Lord of the Rings tries to say something about temptation and power… but most of this turns out as quasi-Christian allegory, with villains like Sauron and Saruman effectively being Christian demons and Frodo as the everyman being tempted by Satan. It isn’t as obtrusive as in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and I wouldn’t rule it being possible to use such tropes to good effect in fiction, but I still prefer The Hobbit’s version of evil.

  • kraut2

    The hobbit is one thing: Too short.

    • Ryan Jean

      Not in the movie form… ;)

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

        Agreed. Though Peter Jackson’s Hobbit isn’t so much a movie version of the Hobbit, as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

    • phranckeaufile


    • Mike De Fleuriot

      And so is LOTR, too short, in that it ends

  • MNb

    I have some quibbles on your less important arguments (Gollem is not really a Deus ex Machina; Ghan-buri-ghan is; the Ring is not really a MacGuffin as there is nothing mysterious about it) but I totally agree with your main argument. In addition: the Hobbit is playful, which doesn’t happen too much in fantasy. As such it is funnier.
    I like the story of Turin Turambar even more because I have a preference for anti-heroes.

    • hf

      How is Ghan-buri-ghan more of a deus ex machina? He allies himself with some he dislikes against a more dangerous foe (see OP). If his timing (unplanned by our heroes) makes him a deus ex machina, then the same applies to Gollum’s knowledge of a semi-secret entrance to Mordor and to the wholly unplanned effects of his actions.

  • Ryan Jean

    When I was a child, one of my father’s books that he had encouraged me to read talked about the Christian allegorical themes of Hobbit, LOTR, and Chronicles. Based on Tolkien’s Catholicism in particular, we can see that even the themes of the troubles of human nature in Hobbit have a relation to the concept of Original Sin, but Tolkien trusts us to get the point on our own without needing to elaborate the connection any further. Tolkien helped convert Lewis to Christianity, but Tolkien never thought well of the Chronicles of Narnia because he thought it was beating the reader over the head too much with the religious themes and insulting their intelligence as a result. Given that, one could easily imagine LOTR to be a response, attempting to do a more direct allegory the “right” way, recognizable but not over the top, and also borrowing from his already established Hobbit world to make the creation of the story that much easier.

    • MNb

      According to Tolkien himself he started LOTR before WW-2, so I think your answer-hypothesis is wrong.

    • eric

      Uh? I think the standard scholarly interpretation is that Tolkein pulled his mythology from many sources including RCCism…but that his primary sources were germanic, norse, and the Finnish Kalevala. All those elves and dwarves? They aren’t christian allegories, they’re literary ‘real’ elves and dwarves from stories such as the Ring of the Neibelung.

  • stanz2reason

    It’s been far too long since I’ve read the books so I’ll keep my comment mostly in the sphere of the films. One of the things that the Hobbit was lacking was the sense of urgency of the LOTR films. The narrative of the Hobbit is ultimately driven by the pursuit of treasure, while the LOTR stories carry a weight of an end of the world sort of scenario. In fact, my favorite scenes in the Hobbit film are the ones touching on elements of LOTR (meeting of the White Council, Riddles in the Dark), because LOTR is just the bigger story even if it’s more simplistic (though I can’t wait to see Smaug stuff in part II and the Battle of the Five Armies in part III). This preference is really a matter of taste though.

    • The_Physeter

      The Hobbit is lacking urgency because they took ONE BOOK which was shorter than any one of the three LotR books, and turned it into THREE MOVIES. There’s not enough plot in Hobbit to properly fill three movies.

      When Peter Jackson signed up to make The Hobbit, he decided not to ACUTALLY make The Hobbit, instead he’s going to make Lord of the Rings again but with a different plot. That’s why you like the LotR-ish scenes in Hobbit better; because they FIT in this kind of movie, where the Hobbit does not.

  • eric

    The Hobbit is more realistic about human motivation and the consequences of war (though this may actually explain why The Hobbit has been more influential).

    I somewhat disagree, though not much. LotR has the Rohan / Minas Tirith relationship, with obstinant, self-serving, and short-minded rulers on both sides (as well as more reasonable voices on both sides too). What’s more, you’ve got the hillfolk-Rohan conflict over old land title issues. That’s pretty standard historical stuff.
    And while I don’t think this is ever explicitly laid out, IMO the Hobbit’s political conflicts are also somewhat McGuffin-based. A very natural intrepretation of the conflicts is that they unearthed a Silmaril (big glowing gem), which caused an unnatural greed in anyone who came in contact with it. First the dwarves who find it do crazy things. The Smaug gets possessive about it. Then the dwarf, elf, and human defeaters of Smaug fall into war when they recover the hoard it’s in. This would make the Hobbit an almost exact parallel to LoTR and the dwarves hoard an exact parallel to the ring of doom. And rather than giving a more sophisticated view of the nature of the various factions, it gives the same simplistic “evil corrupts even the best of us” message.
    I know I’m not normal or mainstream in this respect, but I personally preferred the Silmarillion to either. Elves killing elves and otherwise demontrating venal and very “down to earth” behavior (you married the wrong person, so now I hate you. You kidnapped my wife. Classic love triangle). Plus its essentially many short stories without much of a meta-plot. Its there, but unlike LotR it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a lot of filler put in there specifically to adhere to the metaplot.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      I checked Wikipedia, and as far as I can tell the Arkenstone being a Simaril is mostly fan-speculation, not something Tolkien ever said. Even if Tolkien meant to imply it, that idea was almost certainly a retcon, not something he originally intended.

      It *is* still a MacGuffin, but a less obtrusive one. It doesn’t drive the entire plot, it’s just the subject of an opportunistic gambit by Bilbo at the end.

      • eric

        I doubt he originally intended exactly that, because the Hobbit was written first, but I could certainly see it as a retcon. Its pretty clear that the stone was magical. The dwarve’s response and Smaug’s attack is a pretty obvious play on the “greed leads to bad outcomes” theme. IMO it makes a lot more sense to think an author’s first book (for a younger audience) carries a less refined version of his ‘moral lesson’ than his later works, vs. your interpretation which would have him writing more sophisticated and realistic politics into his initial children’s story than he put in his later adult-oriented books.
        Regardless, this is a minor quibble. Hobbit > LoTR on literary value seems a perfectly reasonable stance to me, even if gem = trial run at ring.

  • Hauser Phoenix

    Disagree EXTREMELY. LOTR is a vehicle for Tolkiens linguistic musings. http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/tolkien-on-language-invention/